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Media Bias: When Reporters Don't Get Neutrality

In the great mythology about journalists, we're all secretly liberal operatives sneaking biased reporting into our stories. In the high ideals of the craft, we're independent observers who don't give a hoot about ideology. And in reality, we're the same bunch of flawed people as populate most any line of work. Now comes a terrific little investigation by MSNBC's Bill Dedman, who sifted through federal elections records to find that all too many journalists don't understand their own craft: They couldn't stop themselves from undermining their own credibility by aligning themselves with candidates for public office.

If there's any good news to be found in the list compiled by Dedman, a former Washington Post reporter, it's that most reporters stay true to the goal of neutrality. But the list of those who do make their political leanings public shows a heavy bias toward Democratic candidates and organizations. To be sure, there are gifts to Republicans; this is a bipartisan catalog of reporters and editors who don't get that it's wrong for supposedly neutral observers to donate money to political candidates. But the overall message here is that some reporters and editors are so eager to show their true colors that they made donations in direct and flagrant violation of their employer's ban on journalists giving to political campaigns.

Here are the Washington area journos (and non-D.C. folks who gave to Washington area candidates) who showed up on the list:

Fox affiliate in Washington, D.C., WTTG, Laura Evans, anchor, $500 in August 2006 to John Sarbanes, Democratic House candidate in Maryland.

NBC News, Victoria Corderi, "Dateline" correspondent, $250 in December 2005 to Democrat Josh Rales, who ran for Sen. Paul Sarbanes' open seat in Maryland.

The Washington Post, Stephen Hunter, film critic, $250 to the National Republican Congressional Committee in June 2004. ("That is indeed my donation, probably an unwise idea," Hunter told Dedman. "A couple of years afterward, I was called aside by someone in management and told not to do it again. And being an obedient boy, I didn't do it again.")

The Washington Times, film critic Gary Arnold, $1,000 to the Republican National Committee in four donations in 2004. Also $1,400 to the RNC in six donations in 1997-2003. Arnold was the Times' full-time critic before becoming a freelancer for the paper in 2005.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, Michael Hardy, state political reporter, $1,000 to Democrat Matt Brown, the former Rhode Island secretary of state, who ran for the Senate. "My contribution in a Rhode Island primary was based on a personal decision," he told Dedman. "As for my assignments, I cover the governor's office, state appellate courts and the General Assembly. I have no national responsibilities."

Richmond Times-Dispatch, Pam Mastropaolo, copy editor, $1,650 to the Democratic Party of Virginia in February 2007, and $1,165 in February 2006.

The Sun, Baltimore, John Scholz, copy editor, $250 to the Democratic National Committee in March 2004.

York, Pa., Daily Record, Teresa Cook, copy editor, $500 to Democratic House candidate John Sarbanes in Maryland in July 2006.

National Public Radio, Corey Flintoff, newscaster, $538 to Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean in December 2003. (Flintoff told Dedman the donation was "actually made by my wife.")

National Public Radio, Michelle Trudeau, correspondent, $500 to Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean in two contributions in September 2003, and $500 more to Dean in May 2004.

National Public Radio affiliate in Washington, WAMU, Susan Goodman, reporter, $450 to Judy Feder, Democrat, in a congressional campaign in 2006; and $1,000 to the Ben Cardin for Senate campaign, Democrat, in 2005. Goodman, no longer at the station, reported on politics and public affairs.

CNN, Guy Raz, Jerusalem correspondent, now with NPR as defense correspondent, $500 to John Kerry in June 2004.

WWJ News Radio, Detroit, Vickie B. Thomas, reporter, gave a total of $1,000 to Senate candidate Kweisi Mfume in the Maryland race for a Senate seat in June and December 2005.

Many of the newspaper journalists Dedman contacted about their contributions said they wouldn't do it again; most of the magazine journalists seemed proud to have made their donations. Here's the most arrogant response of the bunch, from a designer and sometime writer at Newsday on Long Island. When Dedman found that Rita Hall gave $210 to Sen. Hillary Clinton last year, Hall replied that Dedman should "Dig deeper. I gave $2,000 to Kerry." Yes, she did, and she defended her brazen violation of Newsday's ban on political donations: "I'm not allowed to do this. I know it's against the rules," she said. "I'll probably get fired. They're looking for any excuse to cut staff here."

By Marc Fisher |  June 28, 2007; 7:21 AM ET
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Marc: I wish you would have given Stephen Hunter's complete explanation for his donation to the Republicans as detailed by Howard Kurtz. Hunter alleged that there "was probably drink involved." While Stephen may have had his tongue in his cheek a bit, I still admire such a forthright response and, indeed, as I posted to Kurtz's Monday chat, I believe that being drunk is the only plausible excuse for giving money to Republicans.

And, oh yeah, that woman from Newsday sounds like an arrogant idiot.

Posted by: Jack | June 28, 2007 8:33 AM

I think it's funny that only the film critics gave to the Republican party.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 28, 2007 8:37 AM

Way back in the 20th Century there were more actual reporters and fewer opinion essayists in the media, and many reporters registered to vote without party affiliation to emphasize their political neutrality. 21st Century editors allow -- and often encourage -- people charged with reporting news events during the week to blather their personal opinions on the Sunday morning video gab fests. This practice is supposed to help market the journalists' papers and programs - a dubious claim - but undoubtedly undermines public trust in the neutrality and truth-value of news reporting.

Posted by: Mike Licht | June 28, 2007 8:45 AM

Based on your list it appears we must take two things into consideration when we receive "news".

(1) Movie reviews by the Washington Post and Washington Times will lean towards Republican Party side of issues.

(2) All other news is reported leaning toward the Democratic Party side of issues.

I am not so sure how Republican views of movies is going to sway me during an election year, but it appears I must now distrust the reporting of the individuals listed above for all matters.

Anybody who exhibits bias should be ignored, whether it is reporting the news or standing on a soapbox spouting out their racial hatred.

Posted by: SoD | June 28, 2007 8:55 AM

A copy editor can't make a political contribution? Give me a break.

Posted by: Joe Blow | June 28, 2007 8:58 AM

Just because someone donates to a candidate of a party does not make them a member or supporter of that party. In these hyper partisan times I guess that is what many believe but its possible to support the best candidate in one race who happens to be a democrat and the best candidate in another who happens to be republican. A political contribution shows no bias.

Posted by: John Smith | June 28, 2007 9:03 AM

Marc, what both you and Howard Kurtz failed to note is that the 143 journalists identified in the study as having made political contributions "are a tiny fraction of the roughly 100,000 staffers in newsrooms across the nation," as MSNBC itself stated.

As Media Matters noted, the people named in the MSNBC report represent less than two-tenths of 1 percent of news staff in this country.

Find something else to tsk tsk about. In the meantime, read this:

Kurtz again cited report on journalists' donations without noting that only tiny fraction gave at all
http://mediamatters.org/items/200706250008

Posted by: cab91 | June 28, 2007 9:14 AM

Marc:

Jeeze, this is a "Dog bites Man" story. Whodathunkit, the mainstream media is overwhelmingly liberal! Like we needed to know who they write checks to to prove it.

I wonder if there's any correlation between that and the declining prospects of mainstream media companies' business models? Now, there's a study that would make interesting reading.

Keep your eyes open; this expose is sure to attract the attention of your friends at the Newspapers Subcommittee at the Committee for State Security.

Now, where did I stash that supply of old "I don't believe The Post" bumper stickers....

Posted by: 20th St. and Pennsylvania Ave., NW | June 28, 2007 9:44 AM

I think this takes the cake for most bizarre Marc Fisher story yet. The Hatch Act allows federal employees to donate money to campaigns because it's not considered campaigning. The same should hold true for journalists. End of story.

The next step will be what journalist's husband or wife donated to what party. "Have you now or have you ever been a..."

You just contributed to a witch hunt Marc, you are the next Roy Cohn.

Posted by: DCer | June 28, 2007 10:06 AM

The true irony is that MSM editiorial and opinon pages are often reflect more balance, greater fact checking and better analytical thought than their news pages. I can remeber when Meg Greenfield ran the Post's editorial page. Conservatives may have disagreed with her positions but her editorials were always fact based and well reasoned, also she made sure to give competing viewpoints an opportunity to respond. The Post editorial and opinion writiers have largely managed to maintian this tradition. By contrast, the Post's News, Metro and Style sections were and still are largely a hodge podge of opinionated, poorly sourced, one sided hatchet jobs. The same dichotemy applies at most MSM outletes.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | June 28, 2007 10:09 AM

Yes, only a few donated at all. If only there were some way to make assumptions about a larger population based on a smaller subset!

Nah, that's impossible.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 28, 2007 10:24 AM

I'd love to get worked up over this but I just can't. Not making financial contributions to a campaign is a PR move, not a substantive one. Does anyone really believe that a person's opinion on political matters is different based on whether or not they make a campaign contribution? It's not a parallel to reporting on a business where you have an ownership stake; anything a reporter serves to gain from a particular politician winning is not dependent on their making a contribution. It takes a lot more money before you get some level of access or power.

The reality is as you opened your column - reporters are people with flaws and strengths. Additionally, they live in the world that is impacted by these politicians and asking them to NOT CARE - rather than simply do their job with professionalism and objectivity - is simply unreasonable.

Posted by: Don | June 28, 2007 10:37 AM

I have to agree that this barring campaign donations is based on more on a new outlet protecting their public image more than presenting unbiased journalism.

Why not allow reporters to donate to whatever party they choose, so long as there is a database out there (perhaps it should be called the Federal Elections Records) that would allow transparency.

And I also agree that the larger point of the insignificance of these findings needs to be more clear. 2/10ths of a percent is hardly newsworthy for a day, much less the weeks this story has lasted.

Posted by: Chicago, IL | June 28, 2007 11:35 AM

"They couldn't stop themselves from undermining their own credibility by aligning themselves with candidates for public office."

Of course media workers have opinions- everybody does. Why would anyone think otherwise? A more interesting/relevant study would have attempted to correlate political donations with favorable coverage. Absent that, there's no smoke or fire.

Posted by: Mark | June 28, 2007 11:49 AM

Best explanation/excuse was from Bloomberg editor-in-chief Matt Winkler -- his wife made him do it! "I can't control everything my wife does," he told MSNBC.com. "I try. I try. I try."

Posted by: Jim, Georgetown | June 28, 2007 12:05 PM

Who else is not surprised that all the NPR folks on the list gave to the Dems?

Posted by: Eye Street | June 28, 2007 12:51 PM

"Who else is not surprised that all the NPR folks on the list gave to the Dems?"

Wow, yeah, who would've thought that people who choose to work for something they believe in but receive less pay for it would be overwhelmingly democratic?

Posted by: DCAustinite | June 28, 2007 1:34 PM

What difference does it make who a film critic gives to? Maybe if they're reviewing Al Gore or Michael Moore or something but otherwise who cares?

It's the other reporters and journalists that I worry about.

Posted by: librarianmom | June 28, 2007 4:41 PM

I have never understood the argument that NPR and PBS lean toward the left. Seems to me that everytime there's a discussion of public or political issues, they take great pains to call on people who have diverse perspectives on the issue under discussion. In most cases, their interviewees are people who are experts in their fields (i.e., people who know what they're talking about) as supposed to most radio ranters, whose main talent is making noise.

What is true about PBS and NPR is that they are urbane. They assume that people have been, at least, to college, that they are interested in news that doesn't concern trashfires or Paris Hilton, and that they are willing to spend 30-60 minutes learning something new.

If that excludes you, EyeStreet, too bad.


P.S. So that you don't have to look it up, here's a definition or urbane from the thesaurus section of freedictionary.com.

Posted by: THS | June 28, 2007 4:57 PM

I'm not surprised that journalists donate to parties or candidates, nor am I outraged by that.

In fact, if they had any real guts and integrity, they would contest, (in court if necessary,) any restrictions on their right as citizens to donate politically as they please.

Posted by: gitarre | June 28, 2007 5:28 PM

"I have never understood the argument that NPR and PBS lean toward the left. Seems to me that everytime there's a discussion of public or political issues, they take great pains to call on people who have diverse perspectives on the issue under discussion. In most cases, their interviewees are people who are experts in their fields (i.e., people who know what they're talking about) as supposed to most radio ranters, whose main talent is making noise."

It can seem that way, but that "range" of perspectives is too often center to left, rather than representing the full spectrum. I've spent 25+ years as a health insurance actuary, working for insurers, public policy groups, and consulting firms, and I can tell you - when NPR or PBS cover health care and insurance issues, they only pick up about half of the intellectual debate. Most of the time, they honestly seem unaware that there IS anything more to the debate than discussions between the center-left and the left. I've come to believe that it's not so much conscious bias as pure cluelessness - they genuinely seem unaware that there's any legitimate thinking done outside the intellectual circles they habitually frequent.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 28, 2007 5:29 PM

"I'd love to get worked up over this but I just can't. Not making financial contributions to a campaign is a PR move, not a substantive one."

That's not the real issue - it's the remarkable lack of intellectual and political diversity suggested by these contributions. Granted, everyone has biases. Trying to be evenhanded is one way to guard against those biases skewing news coverage. Some will inevitably leak through, though - even if it's simply in what people decide is newsworthy.

Another way to address bias is to involve people with differing points of view.

We've been told for years that diversity is good. Newsrooms may well look like Benetton ads - but they don't appear to look anything at all like the American electorate when you consider intellectual outlook and political affiliation.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 28, 2007 5:35 PM

"We've been told for years that diversity is good. Newsrooms may well look like Benetton ads - but they don't appear to look anything at all like the American electorate when you consider intellectual outlook and political affiliation."

You are right in saying that more journalists are liberals than conservatives, but that distribution needn't lead us to conclude that the hiring practices of media organizations are biased or that media organizations are somehow inhospitable to conservatives.

Consider instead the idea that people select themselves into occupations. At universities, for instance, there are more conservatives in the business schools than in the humanities departments. There are, I'm fairly sure, more Republicans than Democrats in executive suites, and they have lots of influence over what goes on in this country too--probably lots more than journalists.

In thinking about this, keep in mind that conservatives often argue against affirmative action programs on the basis that women, particularly, select themselves into occupations with relatively low pay. The argument goes that, because their position in the economy is a result of choice, neither government nor business has any right or obligation to intervene in ways that might produce a flatter distribution of salaries.

If you agree w/ that position, you should also, it seems to me, accept the idea that people with different outlooks and preferences about what kinds of work they want to do are differentially distributed in the labor force.

Posted by: THS | June 28, 2007 6:17 PM

"It can seem that way, but that "range" of perspectives is too often center to left, rather than representing the full spectrum. I've spent 25+ years as a health insurance actuary, working for insurers, public policy groups, and consulting firms, and I can tell you - when NPR or PBS cover health care and insurance issues, they only pick up about half of the intellectual debate. Most of the time, they honestly seem unaware that there IS anything more to the debate than discussions between the center-left and the left. I've come to believe that it's not so much conscious bias as pure cluelessness - they genuinely seem unaware that there's any legitimate thinking done outside the intellectual circles they habitually frequent."

I'm curious: Can you give me an example of a situation in which important, well-informed perspectives were left out of such a discussion?

Thanks.

Posted by: THS | June 28, 2007 6:20 PM

THS, I'm with you.

5:59 pm -- Please find an interview or discussion (npr.org) about healthcare that did not include many points of view.

Posted by: eyerolling | June 28, 2007 6:52 PM

Gitarre - you are right.

They are private citizens and should be able to donate to whoever they wish. If a reporter or newscast is going to be biased, they will do it, with or without donations.

Posted by: eyerolling | June 28, 2007 6:57 PM

I talked to someone in line today about this and I asked them to explain what they meant when they said that there was a liberal bias in the media. They looked shifty and then said, and I quote EXACTLY, "Do you know how whenever there's something going on they always have to have at least one woman or Black on? That's what I mean! You can't have a news story without them putting a Black on." Then they rolled their eyes. END QUOTE.

Well then, yes, to SOME PEOPLE the mainstream media is liberal if they talk to people who aren't white men. The rest of us will continue to misunderstand this coded message that "liberal media" actually refers to.

Posted by: DCer | June 28, 2007 9:59 PM

"I'm curious: Can you give me an example of a situation in which important, well-informed perspectives were left out of such a discussion?"

Of course. None of the NPR (I listen to them every day on my 1+ hour commute) stories on health care in the last few years has included someone who's helped run one of the many state high-risk pools, which are the most commonly used mechanism today for covering medically uninsurable individuals. None of them has included an advocate for one of the recent legislative proposals to allow health insurance policies approved in one state to be sold nationwide. None of them has included an actuary or underwriter from a health insurer or health plan - the people who actually do the pricing for health coverage. None of them has included one of the actuaries that work for state insurance departments reviewing health plan rates. None of them has included an insurance agent - they're the ones who actually try to convince young adults to buy coverage. None of them has included one of the economists who think the fundamental flaw in our system is, in fact, third-party reimbursement for health care costs (overinsurance) leading to inflated prices and too much unnecessary spending. None of them has included one of the advocates who note that the private market works well for people with sufficient income to pay a meaningful premium - and that no market works if you're poor - with the consequence that if Medicaid were simply expanded to cover everyone below 100% of the federal poverty level, two-thirds of the uninsured problem would be solved. In other words, most of the problem is the government's fault - Medicaid simply doesn't do what most people think it does, which is cover anyone who's poor - and not the health insurance industry's fault.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 29, 2007 10:23 AM

"You are right in saying that more journalists are liberals than conservatives, but that distribution needn't lead us to conclude that the hiring practices of media organizations are biased or that media organizations are somehow inhospitable to conservatives."

You've completely misunderstood the issue conservatives (and many moderates) have with the media. The focus of their concern isn't the hiring practices - this isn't a "labor justice" grievance where conservatives are concerned about being passed up for a cushy job, or being cheated when they open their Washington Post paycheck. The concern is about the impact on what Americans read, watch and hear every day.

I agree entirely that people can self-select into professions. So, for instance, I think it would be ludicrous to have gender quotas for elementary school teachers (to protect either sex). I think it's equally ludicrous to have gender quotas for race car drivers, engineers, scientists, ballet dancers, physical therapists, surgeons, etc.

But, if we know that the great majority of reporters are Democrats - for whatever reasons, regardless of how benign or legitimate - then we have to ask how that affects the every day decisions they make about what to report, how to report it, who to interview, and what aspects of any story are most important and compelling.

It makes the assertion that the media are unbiased a hollow one. The closest any honest mainstream media outlet can come is "we're almost all Democrats, but we do have some professional standards that we take seriously, and we make a good faith effort to give people we disagree with a fair shake." That's important (and I believe it's generally true) - but it's not entirely reassuring.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 29, 2007 10:37 AM

Maybe they can come up with a blind fund for the journalists.

Posted by: bkp | June 29, 2007 3:12 PM

"You've completely misunderstood the issue conservatives (and many moderates) have with the media. The focus of their concern isn't the hiring practices - this isn't a "labor justice" grievance where conservatives are concerned about being passed up for a cushy job, or being cheated when they open their Washington Post paycheck. The concern is about the impact on what Americans read, watch and hear every day.You've completely misunderstood the issue conservatives (and many moderates) have with the media. The focus of their concern isn't the hiring practices - this isn't a "labor justice" grievance where conservatives are concerned about being passed up for a cushy job, or being cheated when they open their Washington Post paycheck. The concern is about the impact on what Americans read, watch and hear every day."

No, I understand that perfectly well. But given your theory of reporting (i.e., a reporter's political inclinations will inevitably affect his or her observations and reports), the only route to objectivity is to have people around w/ diverse views. But if people w/ such views don't choose those occupations, what are we to do? Draft them?

That said, an approach to truth-finding and telling, I don't actually think "we have some professional standards, and we try to give everyone a fair shake" is too bad. We all have to live with some uncertainty. Even a mother's love is not entirely reassuring.

Posted by: THS | June 30, 2007 4:10 AM

To Mr. or Ms. Health Insurance Actuary: It sounds like you have a great basis for a piece on overlooked issues (or unheard voices) in health care finance for the Sunday Outlook section. Give it a shot.

Or write to Steve Pearlstein and tell him you'd like to talk w/ him about these issues. He's written about health care financing extensively, and I'm sure he will again. he pays attention to people who have real information to offer, and he answers his email. So, again, give it a shot.

And write to PBS too--ideally to someone who reports on the issues that concern you. You never know who might be looking for a story idea. As Marc will tell you, some of his best column ideas come in over the transom.

Posted by: THS | June 30, 2007 4:15 AM

THS,
NPR and PBS are full aware of how dishonest they are. And they know that most of the American People do not have time to find more information on their own, and they prey on that irresponsibly.

Posted by: Mbaker | June 30, 2007 4:13 PM

After reading of S. Hunter's gift to a political party that I distrust I will no longer read any of his columns. Perhaps, this is why media companies have the policy of no political donations by its editors, reporters and columists.

Posted by: pajoyo | July 1, 2007 12:57 PM

Mbaker: You present no evidence of the dishonesty of NPR or PBS. If you have some, do tell us about it.

pajoyo: I'm always puzzled by people who won't read things written by "the other side", whoever that is, especially when you don't have to give them any money to do it. Wouldn't you want to find out the perspectives of your political opponents? Or, since we're talking about a film critic, wouldn't you like to compare his views to those of other critics to see how they differ and to determine whether things such as movie reviews are, in fact, heavily influenced by political perspectives?

Posted by: THS | July 2, 2007 6:37 PM

"No, I understand that perfectly well. But given your theory of reporting (i.e., a reporter's political inclinations will inevitably affect his or her observations and reports), the only route to objectivity is to have people around w/ diverse views. But if people w/ such views don't choose those occupations, what are we to do? Draft them?"

Well, for a start, admit that we have a potential for a bias problem. Repeating the "we're impartial" mantra over and over gets in the way of this. Make a conscious effort to think about the ideological mix in the newsroom, and strive to add a bit more diversity (after all, we've increased all sorts of other forms of diversity without "drafting" anyone). "Mainstream" newrooms could try to recognize that the rise of media outlets with a visible conservative bias are likely, in part, a reaction to perceived biases in other media organizations - and rather than railing about how they tarnish journalism, rise to the challenge by reexamining their own biases.

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